Douglas Murray's War on the West—A Review

At a speaking event hosted by the Show-Me Institute last November, Douglas Murray opened his remarks with some reflections on the influence of T.S. Eliot. Eliot had done for Murray, he said, something similar to what he had done for the late English philosopher Roger Scruton, who wrote in his memoirs that the poet had “saved him from Oswald Spengler.” Intrigued, I decided to have a look at Spengler’s best-known work before reading Murray’s new book, hoping to gain some idea of what exactly he was so grateful for having escaped. This was not difficult to ascertain. Excavating a copy of The Decline of the West from the nearest library, my first impressions were forbidding. Dimensions—unwieldy; weight—alarming (this is not a book you want to drop on your toes); binding—thick leather, as though to prevent the escape of insalubrious thoughts; pages—unusually musty, as though still damp with the fetid anguish of previous readers.

Flicking through this monumental tome did little to raise my spirits. In the final chapter, Spengler pronounces on the tragic and inevitable decline of Western civilisation, its yearning to unlock the mysteries of the universe gradually subverted and made hollow by enslavement to “the machine.” Science and technology, invented as tools to serve a transcendent purpose, end up destroying the dream that gave them birth, and the “Faustian” civilisation that dreamed it. It took me half an hour to extract this doom-laden insight from the hard-boiled, labyrinthine prose of the conclusion. In search of further elucidation, I turned to the beginning of the book, only to shrink at the prospect of a near hundred-page introduction, crowded with bewildering phrases like “morphology of history,” “logic of time,” and “world-formation.” With rising panic, I hurried on, flipping page after page until finally, blinking cold sweat out of bulging eyes, I arrived at “Chapter 1: The Meaning of Numbers.” Whereupon I shut the book and fled in terror. Scruton, as it happens, writes somewhere that he was first introduced to Spengler while still at school. Which just goes to show how refined the practice of child abuse had become in the English schools of that benighted age.

Fortunately, Murray’s new book War on the West steers clear of the humourless gloom so typical of other “Spenglerian” works, which take as their theme the notion that Western culture is imperilled. The book departs, in fact, from the rather lugubrious tone of Murray’s own recent output. If The Strange Death of Europe reads like a requiem for a stricken continent, War on the West is intended to be an act of defiance. “The anti-Western revisionists have been out in force in recent years,” he writes in the prelude to a chapter on history. “It is high time that we revise them in turn.” It should be obvious that the “anti-Western revisionists” to whom Murray refers represent a loose coalition of left-wing ideologues convinced that Western culture is irreparably corrupt, its institutions polluted at a fundamental level by various forms of prejudice concerning race, gender, and sexual orientation. These ideas, in Murray’s view, are not only hysterically misguided, but harmful and even dangerous.

Among the strongest passages of the book are those concerning the artistic achievements of European civilisations. Murray writes very eloquently about some of the artists, musicians, and sculptors of the Western tradition, contrasting the depth, humanity, and universality of their works with the sheer crassness of recent attacks mounted upon them. Thus, Michael Tippett’s oratorio ‘A Child of Our Time’ can be denounced for “cultural appropriation” because it incorporates Negro Spirituals. This work, as Murray movingly relates, was conceived as a protest against Kristallnacht, by a Jewish-American composer so deeply affected by the plangent music of the African-American tradition that he once wept at a performance in 1960s Baltimore, at which the largely black audience recognised the spirituals and began, spontaneously, to sing them. This piece of music is now deemed to be somehow suspect, tainted by “white supremacy” despite its profoundly humane and sympathetic intentions.

There is something very disturbing about this reductive, inquisitorial reaction to even the least objectionable artefacts of Western history. Nothing speaks more strongly to the spiritual aridity of social justice extremists than their complete insensitivity to aesthetic nuance and artistic value. Yet Murray deserves credit for not retreating into the embittered fatalism of the prophet of despair. At least with regard to artistic achievements, his defence of the Western tradition is not merely optimistic, but also completely devoid of rancour or exclusionary sentiment. The cultural treasures of the West “deserve respect not because they are the product of white people but because they are the inheritance of all mankind.” One gets the sense, when he writes on these issues, that the crowning achievements of Western culture are not doomed, that they can be reclaimed by anyone who chooses, and that those who do might find rejuvenation in them. This is the hopeful message with which he concludes the book, in fact, insisting that “when people ask where meaning can be found, they should be encouraged to look at what is all around them and just beneath their feet … It is all that they will ever need.”

This strain in Murray hints, I think, at what is most magical in T.S. Eliot, which is his ability to make you believe that the past is not dead. We are written over our ancestors in a sort of invisible palimpsest, and with a bit of poetic imagination, it is possible to read between the lines. Thus, in Sweeney Among the Nightingales, the spectre of Agamemnon can stalk through modern Paris, and the seediest quartiers acquire a sudden and tragic depth. Bound up in all of this is the same idea that, by reanimating the past, the present can be ennobled—Spengler confounded by Eliot. The relentless politicisation of this feeling is a mistake. That there is something lacking in modern life is one of the few things about which, in their way, the Left and the Right can agree. Modernity, for the former, is “materialistic” and “consumerist,” just as for the latter it is “fickle,” “shallow,” and “empty.” I don’t claim to know the answer as to how a sense of the numinous can be reclaimed, but reading Shakespeare is probably a better strategy than trying to “decolonise” him.

Murray’s book is not, of course, apolitical as a whole, and its political aspects account, I think, for some of its shortcomings. One of these is a slight tendency to exaggerate, magnifying the importance of fairly trivial incidents in order to present them as part of the “remorseless” war against the West. At one point, following a discussion of the absurdities of “anti-racist” school curricula, he cites a Twitter thread seeking to prove that “the idea of 2+2 equalling 4 is cultural and because of western imperialism/colonization.” One of the tweeters being a maths teacher, Murray warns of the risk that mathematical standards in education “will be lowered or expunged altogether” as a result of such ideas and reminds the reader of the obvious parallels to be found in “George Orwell’s most famous book.” It is difficult to take these baleful warnings at face value, however, given that all the Twitter accounts Murray cites as evidence have fewer than a thousand followers, which strikes me as a somewhat insufficient basis of support if your goal is to erase mathematical logic from the minds of an entire generation.

This is not to suggest that Murray’s larger argument is confected or alarmist. His basic contention is that anti-Westernism under the guise of social justice, has become popular enough to be threatening. If enough are convinced that Western history is nothing more than a catalogue of moral outrages and that Western societies remain irredeemably oppressive, tyrannical, bigoted, and all the rest of it, then what sense is there in preserving such a system? Democracy, civil liberties, freedom of conscience, and expression—these are simply myths manufactured by an unjust system to induce compliance. Why not burn it all to the ground and start again? And in the event of a confrontation with a hostile foreign power, why risk anything at all to defend what is indefensible? The war in Ukraine has underscored and italicised these questions posed by Murray. A recent poll by Quinnipiac University asked respondents whether they would “stay and fight” if America was invaded like Ukraine. Fully 52 percent of Democrats, and some 36 percent of Republicans, said they would leave the country instead.

Grave concern is not unwarranted, then. But Murray believes that the solution to this mess is deceptively simple: gratitude. People who live in the West must realise how fortunate their position is, to inhabit some of the richest, freest, most tolerant societies that human beings have ever been able to build. There is a great deal for all of us to be thankful for, but too many of us, in Murray’s view, fail to recognise this. He argues, quoting Nietzsche in support, that a deficiency of gratitude breeds resentment and a heightened desire for revenge. But spite and vengefulness never present themselves openly. Instead, they tend to dress themselves in the more honourable garb of “justice.” The only cure for the warped and pathological view of justice that emerges from such resentment is gratitude. If you are “incapable of realizing what you have to be thankful for, you are left with nothing but your resentments and can be contented by nothing but revenge.”

Murray’s emphasis on the importance of gratitude is reasonable enough as a moral insight, but as a practical solution to the problem of anti-Westernism and identity politics, it suffers from several problems. The first is that his conception of social justice extremism as a sort of Nietzschean pathology is incomplete and slightly misleading. For a start, bringing Nietzsche into a debate about politics is something of a double-edged sword, because the arguments here deployed against the social justice warriors Murray disdains can just as easily be applied to things he values and respects, notably Christianity (a religion based, in Nietzsche’s view, on slave resentment). As Nietzsche thought that the very idea of justice was itself a delusion produced by resentment, there can be no distinction between “sincere” and spiteful motivations on the part of those who claim to seek it. Something of this persists in Murray’s critique, which implies that everyone who is drawn to left-wing identity politics is actuated by a lust for retribution, as opposed to a genuine desire to create a fairer society.

While this is undoubtedly true in some, even many, cases, it does not hold universally. It is not just embittered black people who call for reparations, as plenty of white liberals do this, too. Lots of men are sympathetic to feminism, heterosexuals to gay activism, non-trans people to the trans movement, and so on. Not all of this can be put down to “virtue signalling.” Many people, presumably, accept the social justice nostrums propagated by activists out of a misguided but ultimately good-faith aversion to perceived structural inequities. Such people are not likely to be convinced by Murray’s paean to gratitude. Their sense of the injustices of Western society, many of which are real enough, will not be diminished by having someone tell them not to be resentful, and if anti-Westernism is the only game in town that provides an outlet for altruistic sentiment, it is likely to gain many adherents.

All this implies that the solution, if there is one, must come from the Left. What is needed is a rival movement that caters to people’s aspirations for social fairness and the remission of suffering without recommending that we tear down statues, throw out the Western canon, obsess about superficial aspects of our identities, and so on. It would not be fair, of course, to expect this from Murray, who, as a conservative, is naturally more suspicious of social reform than those of a left-wing temperament, a perspective that is perfectly valid in its own terms. On the other hand, while the defiant stance of his book necessitates a certain combativeness of tone, Murray seems at times to flirt with the notion that any criticism of Western society or foreign policy is an expression of a sinister, vengeful, anti-Western worldview. This inflexibility is not likely to convert any wayward radicals. One can only hope, as Murray probably does himself, that the Left will prove him wrong by showing that there really is another way, that you can be critical without expressing undiluted contempt, and that you can struggle and hope for change without burning everything to the ground.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://quillette.com/2022/06/23/murrays-war-on-the-west-a-review/
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Excellent analysis Gisa.

Murray’s work as well as the many interviews Iv’e seen of him certainly give the impression he has a tendency of jumping to assumed unfounded vilification of critics of western civilisation but in my experience this is a common assumption by neo conservatives. Maybe criticism being simplistically equated with ingratitude is more a reflection of fragility? That critique is met with such incurious defensive insult rather than good faith balanced engagement certainly says something about insecurity or possibly even a resistance to change of those most egregious claims?

And perhaps it’s the criticism being deflected with accusations of ingratitude that has contributed to much of the antipathy & distrust towards the west? In any case if the great achievements of western culture are to be appreciated, perpetuated & enriched denigration of those whose duty it is to interrogate flaws for its betterment isn’t the way to ingratiate it.

Seems we do indeed need to develop a more resilient culture for western civilisation’s sake but it’s not the usual suspects who are the snowflakes….

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Good essay. But the problem with the modern social justice movement is that it holds a number of priors which are incorrect. I won’t correct the bulk of them, but instead focus upon two. The first is that the market economy is a specifically Western invention. It isn’t. Although market economies have been somewhat rare throughout history, examples can be found- and all bar one predate the Western Enlightenment. The Hindu Kush is one example during certain periods. Without exception market economies have been wealthier, with higher standards of living for their citizens, whilst by comparison Statist societies have led to impoverishment*. Perhaps the best example is ancient China which fluctuated between both systems- the market periods were abundant, the Statist periods were poor and presided over by the Four Horsemen.

Second, most problems are caused by government. Don’t get me wrong- government can do a lot of good, if it can avoid its pathological tendency to avoid both the waste of labour and precious finite resources. But it also needs to see how it can inflict catastrophic harms if it isn’t very careful with how it designs system. Probably the most poignant example of this is America’s dreadful history with high density public housing projects. These were an entirely Leftist invention and meant to be the housing of the future.

The tragedy is that they could have been a huge societal good. There are plenty of examples of similar public housing projects in Europe which work extremely well. But the tenant base needs to be confined to hardworking low income workers, with no tendency towards antisocial behaviour. In these circumstances, public housing relieves pressure and prices in the rental market, and even tilts the local housing market towards housing affordability. When the housing is indiscriminate and open to both the antisocial and the unemployment, these places quickly become amplifiers of social ills, sinkholes of despair and hugely destructive to society as a whole. It is precisely the ability to discriminate on the basis of who was laudably deserving which makes large scale public housing projects either a societal good, or a huge societal ill.

But even more critical is that government is the main reason why so many millennials remain persistently unable to afford a home of their own. The bulk of any homes cost is scarcity costs. When government adopts an open and libertarian approach to planning, scarcity costs go down drastically, because there is an ample supply of cheap building land. When government decides exactly what types of homes they want people to live in and where, housing costs become extortionate.

To be fair capital plays a role as well. When the financial types see that the supply of land is restricted, they invest in the land as a speculative asset, with the inevitable result that they get the make money without adding value. But without government acting as an enabler for this process the financiers wouldn’t possess the opportunity.

And this is where the current iteration of the social justice movement fails. Because if the answer to every problem is racism, structural or otherwise, you can’t use empiricism to diagnose the problem, or the real roots of inequities and unfairness. And if you can’t see that as often as not government can be just as much of a problem as capitalism, then you’re never going to have any hope of creating a fair and just society. Until the activist class can begin to value what works above what seems morally virtuous, they have no hope of changing the world for the better.

*Addendum. The American Big Government era enjoyed success, but only because all of its Western competitors immediately copied it, leading to a period of stagnation and austerity throughout the rest of the West. America had an advantage going into this period because of the massive discount labour had given American industrialists out of a sense of patriotic duty. Another huge advantage was Hollywood and American music, which created an overwhelming romanticism for American goods.

But make no mistake, the American Big Government era only worked because everybody else copied them, effectively creating a self-inflicted wound to their own economies. It was a unique historical situation which gave America an undeserved (in the economic sense) unassailable comparative advantage.

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" Seems we do indeed need to develop a more resilient culture for western civilisation’s sake but it’s not the usual suspects who are the *snowflakes…."

How do we actively develop a culture? My understanding of culture is that it emerges (depending who you ask it may or may not be downstream of politics) and it isn’t something we consciously create. I don’t recall the Department of Culture and Heritage in my home state placing a label on classic Australian literature.

Perhaps Gisa is right on the money when he says “All this implies that the solution, if there is one, must come from the Left” Because I definitely think it does. The right will focus too heavily on “the death of god” and how this has to be revivified. Even Murray himself has used the phrase “jesus smuggling”.

I think Left needs to reform its attitude towards culture and society, while the right has to realise the weaknesses in its own economic argument (or at least the version of it that we have become accustomed to in the west now).

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Not only was this analysis on point, but it was easy reading. Thank you Gisa if you are reading this.

The only thing I could add is that the concerns about “Faustian” civilisation should probably be explored a little more. I don’t think it’s unfair to say that we should be concerned about the emergence of pornography (specifically in relation to Virtual Reality, onlyfans et al) in the West - where a far more liberal and accepting attitude towards this media is clear. This much being said, recidivist traditionalists who harp on about christianity and the end of the days and the importance of the bible are equally as deluded as those who think excessive consumption of sexualised media does absolutely zero harm.

Other than that small detail, this review is fair. I find Murray certainly flirts with the notion that criticism of the west is sinister or vengeful. The same can be said for his attitude towards Islam (check out the Doha debate where I think he did very well, but on the point of who the audience “would rather” call the shots the “mullahs” comment didn’t fly). I sometimes think Murray tries to channel his inner Hitchens deliberately when he’s peeved off - like the Doha debate. I don’t think he has to because he already does it with his erudite prose and analysis.

for consideration: The Global Refugee Crisis | FULL DEBATE | Doha Debates | Douglas Murray, Marc Lamont Hill and More - YouTube

But in all honesty I think we need more Douglas Murray’s. No doubt about it.

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‘The left’ like ‘the right’ entails a very broad spectrum of views that in my experience is more moderate & advocates accordingly however the hyper focus on a minority of extremists (usually students who have historically always been on the wild side) by media & political grifters conveniently exaggerate the extent of the dangers which in turn triggers both the right & left into tribal mode. Can the culture be reformed? That all depends on whether the masses wake up or want to wake up to the grift. Ironically the actual war on the west which encompasses the destruction of civilised & fruitful discourse has been provoked by the very same mob who make a living off objecting to it like Murray & co.

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Yabut it could be the statism was a response to social breakdown.

Provoked you say? So all the cancellations are really whitey’s fault? Can we have an example of Murray provoking?

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Well he believes that letting Muslims immigrate to European countries is bad.

Based on what you have said on this forum I believe you are sympathetic to this viewpoint. If so, I can meet you half-way and agree that there are legitimate concerns for any country that excess immigration into it from places which do not share the same cultural values can lead to challenges.

However Murray phrases it this way. "Europe is committing suicide". Now that is a rather bold statement! Not content with just discussing limits on immigration he goes even further and states that “Conditions for Muslims in Europe must be made harder across the board”. A straight up call to discriminate against legal immigrants on the basis of their religion.

Whether one agrees with these statements is irrelevant. Statements like these are phrased in a deliberate effort to provoke. More directly to @Ella-B 's point is that he intentionally phrases things provocatively to help sell his books.

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This post was flagged by the community and is temporarily hidden.

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While dislike Spengler, do accept that World War I destroyed Western Civilization. It was a knock out blow, that left politicians and religious leaders struggling to find ways forward that showed a revived life and pride in what had been done in the past and what was being achieved in the present. Then came
World War II, and all illusions of what man might be fell away.
Since then the West has been in a very long holding action, trying to reassert itself, state a set of beliefs that it could and would stand for and defend. The Cold War provided a needed stage to see what would hold. Progress began to be made.
Germany and Japan were not treated like slaves, in the U.S. segregation was ended, one person one vote came into being. SOme nice things, unfortunately college became a place of having to be relevant. The students needed to understand why they were there, rather than learn what a life could be. The colleges have continued, as a whole, to go downward, where science is no longer prized, or illusion of what a life can be allowed. A cultural indifference to anything that is better or worse has settled in. Why educate someone from a poor area when that life is as good as any. Culture is a distinction not worthy of a preference.
Yet with this, Murray is right, gratitude, thanks is a much better way to live than suffering through it.
The greats of Western and other civilizations are worth knowing. A life can be lived that is worthy, if only in ones own mind.
The tide will and is turning. A new beginning has begun. Habits from FDR onward are being shed, while keeping the better parts. The right, for all of its faults, and they are multitude, at least produces a lower body count. At its worst, it still allows independent thought, though not publication of it. The mistakes with the schools during the pandemic will start the change. If grounded on an allowance to disagree, on human dignity, some new version of Western Civilization may yet arise.
The Kendi’s and such of this world are more a representation of what needs to be fixed, not the manner to do it.
If you want a better world, to the best of one’s abilities, one has to live as if it is already here. Doing unto others as you would have them do unto you. No exceptions. Then maybe, just maybe we can live in peace with each other both at home and abroad.

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Sure, but that doesn’t make it wrong. I did not just make the claim, I provided my reasoning as well.

BTW I see that someone flagged your post for moderation. No, it was not me.

No, I’d not suspect you. Probably Ella but she’s boycotting me at the moment so someone else will have t ask her. But see how even defending the principle of FOS is ‘Harm’?

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And I’d not say you were wrong but that it is insufficient. FOS is always inconvenient, feelings are hurt, snowflakes melt, wokies cover their ears and run for a safe space. Those pseudo traumas are not sufficient warrant to interfere with someone’s right to express their opinion. You are a person with thoughts therefore I’d expect you to be a traditionalist on this issue. I’m with the classical definition as expressed by Holmes and others. Any opinion can be advanced, but libel, council to commit a crime and mischief are not protected.

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The mischief always trips me up… I just can’t seem to get enough…

Fine observations. And still, he should write them, provoke and attempt to sell his books. If and when the Bible and the Koran are treated with the same disdain, we may begin to have a discussion. But I would oppose banning them, and taking a stand against any books. Robin Di Angelo’s White Fragility should be sold next to Mein Kampf where it belongs…

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Indeed! But of course, the right become incredibly sensitive as well. Awful books are banned in schools because of the right. They need to stop. Freedom of speech means a willingness to allow for a certain amount of chaos. When anyone tries to put too much “order” into society, even if they feel the reasons are right… is when things quickly go off the rails. The woke are not woke but fast asleep. They insist that we all share their collective nightmare… but not everyone is sleeping.

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where anti-woke is woke itself? Not wrong, though I think there’s probably more to it than that.

Each “side” of the political spectrum has its radicals. I don’t believe it’s fruitful to lay the blame of the decline in Western identity at the feet of one side, but both. The ‘old’ Left have abandoned their origins as have the right

Not really. Although yes, if we are being technical. What we have to remember is that its an evolutionary cycle in political and economics terms. First, we have a period during which through luck and happenstance leads to the creation of the market. Then we see massive growths in human wealth, wellbeing and living standards. Then the wealth begins to concentrate just as government begins to grow. Then government growth becomes a cancer, choking off healthy economics.

The shit of it is, that government sells the message that the market is to blame and they are the solution, even though government size and scale is actually the root of the problem. Unfortunately, enough people usually believe it. One of two things usually happens- the decline is either fast or slow. If it’s fast the system collapses. This is what happens with socialism. Overall, collapse is the preferred option- although because of our ability to destroy ourselves, it probably isn’t now. If the decline is slow, one can have centuries long periods where the people are forced to scrape, are made servile, and subject to the whims of whatever corrupt collective entity sits in power, feeding off its own people like a bloated spider.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m broadly for reasonable government- but where government goes wrong is in never recognising at what point it should constrain its own power over its own citizens, or limit its own growth.

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I think mischief is the perfect word tho perhaps malice is better. When you shout ‘fire’ in the crowded theater you are not really advancing and idea, you are merely trying to cause a stampede, FOS defense will get you nowhere.

Cute.

They have come to understand that the group that throws the loudest tantrum wins.

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